September 14th, 2007 04:54 EST
Counting the Rings of Your Family Tree
After one of my uncles died several years ago, some of us decided we'd gather every Labor Day weekend in Johnson City, Tenn., where my only remaining aunt and uncle on my mother's side live after migrating from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Like many family agreements, this one has yet to materialize, though some of us come to Johnson City this time every year just to be with one another.
I had already arranged to drive Mama to Johnson City from Augusta, Ga. to visit her oldest sister, Julia Mae Cousin, now 89 years old, and their brother, Willie James Harris. Johnson City, located in East Tennessee, near the Tennessee/Virginia line, was one of my childhood summer homes. At least, that's what I called it. As a kid, I was romping with my cousins on my father's side in Reform or Carrollton, Ala. or hanging out with my other set of cousins in Johnson City. I had plenty of cousins on each side and we remain close to this day.
This trip to Johnson City was primarily for Mama. With only one brother and a sister still living from a family of five boys and three girls, Mama gets very emotional when she visits Johnson City. A cousin in Johnson City, Bertha Mae Swepson, is like an aunt because she was reared by Big Mama. Mama and I treat every visit as if it might be our last one - and for good reason. In recent years, we've had a series of deaths in the family.
Before we could arrive in Johnson City to connect with family, we learned that Aunt Julia Mae, a diabetic, would have to have a toe removed. So the trip took on added significance. After Big Mama died in 1968, Aunt Julia Mae has been the acknowledged head of the family. She has always acted like it, pointing a finger and bossing everyone around even when Big Mama was alive.
When she fusses at me, I reply, "Aunt Julia Mae, I love it when you talk to me like that," which causes her to fuss even more. That's her way of showing love. Even as she approaches the age of 90, she probably has the quickest wit in the family.
On this trip, Aunt Julia Mae mentioned that her husband, Horace, once sang in the choir. Mama joking asked, "For how many minutes?" Aunt Julia Mae retorted, "How many minutes does a choir sing?" She did that sitting up in a chair at the hospital. We knew that the old Aunt Julia Mae was back.
Little Buddy, one of Aunt Julia Mae's sons, found some letters in the house that Big Mama had written Aunt Julia Mae during the last months of her life. Little Buddy's real name is Willie James Stuart; he now lives in Nashville. He was named after Uncle Buddy, whose real name is Willie James Harris. I accuse Little Buddy of perpetuating identity theft because he not only stole Uncle Buddy's real name, but his nickname as well.
Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of Big Mama's death. As the first grandson, Big Mama and I had a special relationship. When I worked as a teenager, I would slip her part of my earnings. At other times, she would give me money. And when Mama told me I had to start washing dishes, Big Mama stepped in an overturned that decision. Big Mama was the Supreme Court, overturning lower court decisions when necessary.
There were a lot of funny things in Big Mama letters, especially about my Uncle Percy, but in the interest of family unity, I won't go into those details. There was something in one letter, dated January 17, 1968, that I read at least 25 times over the weekend: "George [would] love to come to see you all. He is a nice boy."
Nearly 40 years after the death of Sylvia Harris, nothing has renewed the bond with my Big Mama more than knowing that she considered me a "nice boy." She always made me feel special when she was alive and now I feel special after her death.
Uncle Buddy says he has several letters from Big Mama and he promised to share them with me after he finds them. I am really looking forward to reading those, too. Before Uncle Percy and Uncle Frank died, I tape-recorded them. I've also done the same thing with Mama, Aunt Julia Mae and Uncle Buddy.
I strongly urge you to collect your family history before it's too late. Who knows, your Big Mama might have considered you a "nice" boy or girl.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com.